Link to an amazing post on “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

The late Le Guin’s “The  Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has been a reliable staple in every Introduction to Literature class I’ve taught.  This short story manages, within a few pages, to illustrate the imaginative and moral power of a well-crafted work of fiction.  By moving between first-, second- and third-person narrator, Le Guin invites her readers to participate in the construction of Omelas.

Because we, in true reader-response fashion, contribute to the creation of “joyous” Omelas, we also find ourselves complicit in what follows – a miserable child is locked away, and the joy of the city, so we are told, is dependent on the child’s misery.  The child is unnamed and its sex is never revealed.  I imagine Le Guin writing, “You want the child to have a name?  By all means, name it.  Is the child a boy or a girl?  It’s as you wish.”  As a master writer, Le Guin writes none of this.  She doesn’t need to; we’re already there, projecting on to the blank face of the child the image of children we know.

The story ends by presenting the reader with the two options apparently available to the people of Omelas: either stay in Omelas and accept the suffering of the child as the price of happiness, or leave Omelas and venture out into the great unknown.  But here’s the thing – Le Guin has invited us to be co-creators with her.  We don’t need to settle for the dichotomy she provides.  We can make other choices.  In our Omelases we can break into the basement and free the child.  We can say that no society that trades the well-being of an innocent person for its prosperity and happiness deserves to be prosperous and happy.  We can end the Festival of Summer.  And what will we replace it with?  How will we rebuild Omelas?  In any way we want.  Perhaps the Festival of Summer will become the Festival of the Children in which everyone celebrates that suffering is an unavoidable human experience, but that we share the burden of suffering and make choices so that a fragile happiness can be shared by all.

And perhaps the people who walked away from Omelas will return again.

Anyhow, by all of this I merely meant to connect you to this post by Gabrielle Bellot.

A Rose by Any Other Name

This is Rachel – I still haven’t figured out how to post under my own name…that’s rather poignant within this topic. This is the second blog that I have started about The Dispossessed; however, the other post ended up being too much information for “just a blog” and will end up being a scholarly article on “Language, Masculine Discourse, and Sexual Assault in Le Guin’s Feminist Critique of Utopia.” This blog post is NOT that. But it does tie in with that overall theme. So… on to names.

Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday night. Coincidentally, we are reading and discussing The Dispossessed this week. I also always teach two of Le Guin’s short stories in my ENG111 each semester (and sometimes in my Women’s Lit and American Lit courses). I love the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, and so do many of my friends. I received not one, not two, but four separate text messages from other lovers of Le Guin grieving SF’s and feminist literature’s loss. One of those texts simply said, “Ursula.” That name alone was all that the text needed to say. I knew exactly who it meant, I knew what it was about that name that my friend was saying, and I felt the same emotions that my friend felt, simply by reading the name “Ursula.”

This set me thinking about names and the meaning/importance of names and the act of naming (or unnaming). In my literature classes, I regularly tell students that the names of characters are important, that authors intentionally choose the names of people and places (as well as titles, but we’ll talk about that in class tomorrow). In the article, “Personal Names and Identity in Literary Context,” Benedicta Windt-Val notes the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self. …[P]ersonal names and place names are some of the most important tools of the author in the creation of credible characters placed in a literary universe that gives the impression of being authentic.” This highlights the significance between a name and an identity, as well as a name and credibility and being authentic. In many of Le Guin’s writings we see the connection between name and identity, including The Dispossessed, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and “She Unnames Them.” However, Le Guin isn’t simply naming or giving her characters names to signify their credibility or authenticity; rather she is leaving them nameless, “unnaming” them, or giving them computer generated, generic names, as a means to deconstruct and demonstrate the power in a name, challenging the naming power, challenging those who traditionally name.

Let’s look at The Dispossessed as our first example: the women and men of Anarres have non-gender specific names, given out by a computer, so that no two names are the same. Each name is a random assemblage of letters to create something uniquely unlike anyone else. This process is based on the teachings of Odo. In Le Guin’s precursor short story “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974), Odo says that the anarchist movement was “not strong on names. They had no flag. Slogans came and went as the need did. …But when it came to names they were indifferent, accepting and ignoring whatever they got called, afraid of being pinned down or penned in” (28). Out of this, the unimportance of names arises on Annares.

A name in many cultures, including many names in Latin based languages, implies gender, one aspect of identity. In the arena of gender, Annares’ computer generated names stand tall. On Urras, when discussing gender differences on Annares, the Urrasi physicists complain and/or comment on how Annaresti names are useless for telling gender, which they find troubling and a bit offensive: “‘Gvarab was a woman?’ Pae said in genuine surprise and laughed. Oiie looked unconvinced and offended, “Can’t tell from your names, of course,” he said coldly” (74). The idea of gender equality escapes the Urrasi people and the binary genders of men and women not only have distinctive, identifying names, but entirely separate spheres. The names of Annarestis deny Urrasis from easily dismissing a woman based upon her gender, as defined by her name. In this way, to this end of eliminating gender differences in names, the computer naming process on Urres works well. However, one’s name on Urres still ties closely to individual identity.

The computer generated name isn’t a name that carries with it tones or meaning from previous owners or of family heritage. The name doesn’t give the child something to live up to. For most on Annares, this naming process and their unique name appears freeing (at least that’s how Shevek seems to view it). However, we are shown that the name still ties deeply to the core of identity, as we see in the one instance, when Shevek meets someone with a too similar name. This other man insists on beating up Shevek (who tries to defend himself, but he’s still a scrawny boy). [Side bar: is it odd or coincidental that both of these characters with similar names both happen to be men? It strikes me as an odd coincidence and I believe Le Guin to be too crafty for this to merely be coincidence.] This instance demonstrates that there is ownership over the name and that ownership is worth fighting for. If their names were exactly alike, we could envision a society plagued with these sort of name squabbles. But even in this solitary instance, rather than unite people because they don’t have family ownership over the name or because the power isn’t in the hands of someone naming,  the name acts as an individualizing tool. Each name carries with it the burden of being distinctly unique and is easily threatened when it is reveled to not be so unique after all. This name, albeit randomly assigned, still carries with it the weight of identity, and here that is the identity of the individual (not the collective) and the needs of the individual seem to take precedent in this example. Le Guin enforces the notion of the “close connection between a person’s given name and their feelings of identity and self.” Even within a system where a computer randomly assigns a name, the name provides a person with a strong sense of identity.

Naming also plays a key role in Le Guin’s short story “She Unnames Them.” The title tells us as much. In this short story (read it here), an unnamed narrator goes around and unnames animals, or rather she convinces them to give their names back. “Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifferences with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names.” Doesn’t this sound exactly like the words of Odo when discussing the anarchists? The unnamed narrator acknowledges that there is power in naming and in unnaming: “it was somewhat more powerful than I had anticipated.” However, she doesn’t want the power, but rather is handing the power back to the animals to decide on the names they do or do not want. She then does the same thing with her name; she gives it back. She “went to Adam, and said, “You and your father lent me this [name] – gave it to me actually. It’s been really useful, but it doesn’t exactly seem to fit me very well lately. But thanks very much! It’s really been very useful.” With the reference to Adam, the animals, the father, and a later comment about the garden, as a reader we know who the narrator is and our urge is to name her. Le Guin knows this. If I ask my students who have just read this, “who is the narrator?” they immediately tell me that it is Eve. But she isn’t. That was the name that Adam and God the father gave her. They defined her, pinned her down, and penned her in with naming her what they wanted. The narrator gives that name back; she helps the animals to give their names back. She frees herself and helps the animals free themselves as well. Her identity and the identity of the animals now resides in their own hands. They define themselves, they name themselves, they create themselves, and they now control and tell their own story. In Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989), Le Guin notes “[I]n its everyday uses in the service of justice and clarity, what I call the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful. When it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive….The father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard” (Dancing 14849). For Le Guin, this “language of power” privileges particular ways of theorizing and understanding the world. It is gender-biased at its core. This father tongue, THE Father’s tongue named everything and everyone in the world. It not only “claims a privileged relationship to reality,” it IS reality. All of reality. This “father-tongue” is what the unnamed narrator in “She Unnames Them” is rejecting. It isn’t a forceful rejection, but a giving the gift back, a careful, deliberate unnaming, reclaiming of her self, of her identity.

Lastly, to note the importance of names in Le Guin’s work, I direct us to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (read here). In this short story, our again unnamed narrator introduces us to Omelas. There isn’t a single singular name in the entire story. In this story, only “the people of Omelas” exist, with only one exception: the child who is not considered part of the people. “In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl.” This child is kept away from the people. This child MUST be kept separate from the people. No one can talk to the child. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” All of their happiness depends upon the child being kept apart and dehumanized and all the people of Omelas know this: “They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” The unnamed, ungendered child is no longer human; even the pronoun “it” is used in reference. The child is without a name because it is without an identity, stripped of clothes, dignity, love, and name. The removal of the name here is used as a weapon against the child to dehumanize it, which is what needs to happen for the society to exist. The people of Omelas are also unnamed in the story though. This unnaming allows them to evade individual responsibility for the abominable misery of the child. As a whole, collective people, no one person holds any other one person responsible. No one is to blame. No name, no blame. The close link between a name and feelings of identity applies when all the people identify as one collective Omelas consciousness.

In many other of Le Guin’s works she plays with the notion of names and the naming process. She clearly links naming with power and names with identity. Logan Pearsall Smith said, “Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” Le Guin shows names as labels to past, present, and future behavior. Her name conveys an essence of brilliance from her past behaviors and her life of writing. May we always remember her name and the power therein.

Discussion Questions for “The Dispossessed”

  1. As Rachel and I have noted in the past, the title of a work of literature often serves as a key to understanding the work. Why might Le Guin have chosen The Dispossessed as the title?  Where does she use the words “possessed” and/or “dispossessed”?  Early editions of the novel had the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia; the subtitle was dropped from later editions.  How so we see this novel a utopian narrative?  Why did Le Guin modify Utopia with “ambiguous”?  How does dropping the subtitle change our experience of the novel?
  2. Walls
    • Walls are a recurring motif in the novel. How do walls come to mean different things at different points in the novel?  How do walls affect consciousness?
    • At one, Shevek tells Takver that he is going “to unbuild walls” (332). Why does Le Guin have Shevek employ the unusual verb “unbuild” instead of more common verbs like “tear down” (as in “Mr. Gorbachev – Tear down this wall”)?  Are there any disadvantages to “unbuilding” walls?  Takver cautions Shevek, “It may get pretty drafty” (333).  Obviously Shevek’s determination to “unbuild” walls has consequences that extend to the people around him – the people on Anarres and Urras.  How might his act be responsible or irresponsible?
    • Finally, it is impossible to think about the wall in the novel without thinking about the “Make America Great Again” movement and its isolationist and nativist philosophy.  What might the novel tell us about living in the age of Trump?
  3. In the novel we are introduced to two dominant languages – Iotic, which presumably evolved, and Pravic, which was artificially constructed. How do these languages shape the consciousness of the speakers?  In particular, we should consider the evolving consciousness of Shevek, who is the only person who speaks both languages (Sabul can read Iotic, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak it). On page 344, while both communicating through their second language (Iotic), Terran ambassador Keng tells Shevek, “It’s as if you invented human speech! We can talk – at last we can talk together.”  What are the ramifications of this “invention” of communication, of “human speech,” particularly if it reflects Shevek’s idiosyncratic consciousness?
  4. Sex, Sexuality, Gender and Family
    • A common trope of utopian and dystopian literature is the re-imagining of familial structures. In Orwell’s 1984 sex is anathema, and as a consequence romance and families do not threaten the power of the state.  In Huxley’s Brave New World promiscuous sex is encouraged, and sex is entirely separated from procreation, thus preventing families from undermining the state.  How do partnerships, marriages, sexual relationships and familial ties on Anarres and Urras affirm or undermine social institutions and social cohesion?
    • The Odonians use “brother” and “sister” to refer to each other, thus creating a fictionalized family, while, at the same time, the elimination of the personal pronoun in connection to biologic family members (i.e. “my mother”), along with the removal of family names or naming undercuts the traditional notion of family bonds. How is it, then, that family bonds, like the bond Shevek feels for Sadik, survive?  To what extent has society on Anarres failed to escape old familial structures?
    • Shevek, as Odonian, has been indoctrinated for his whole life into respecting the personhood of others. What factors, then, lead to his sexual assault on Vea?  How does Shevek’s behavior prior to the assault establish his failure to recognize Vea as a full human?  Why does Le Guin include the sexual assault in the novel and then not return to it after the fact?
    • How tolerant are the Anarresti of queer sexuality? Does Bedap the only character who is explicitly identified as “pretty definitely homosexual” enjoy the same treatment as other characters (172)?  What does the intercourse between Bedap and Shevek reveal about the function of sex in Anarresti society?
    • How are the gender roles of men and women different on Anarres from the gender roles of men and women on Urras? How do economics and language create or encourage those differences?
  5. How does the conversation between Shevek and Ambassador Keng break the fourth wall and include us readers in the novel?

Discussion questions

FORNICATING FOR FREEDOM:  SEXUAL SUBVERSION IN THE TOTALITARIAN STATE

Michael D. Amey

I’m back with yet another post on 1984.  In this post I’m focussing on a major recurring theme in dystopian fiction:  the power of sexual acts to liberate and enslave individuals. This theme is also evident, of course, in We, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens

1984 coverWhen we think of sex, many of us envision an activity that occurs fairly much the same way among people everywhere.  We generally do not imagine, unless we’re thinking very carefully about sex, that sex is somehow a culturally mediated activity.  Put more simply, we often think that sex is natural—stripped of culture and simply a response to biologic urges and hormones.  As various scholars have shown, however, this is a misconception.  In her essay, “The Traffic in Women:  Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin uses an analogy to question the idea that sex is devoid of cultural content:

Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained.  Every society has some form of organized economic activity.  Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained.  Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be. (538)

The point that Rubin is making is absolutely relevant to the depictions of sex that we have seen in 1984 and in We.  The sexual activities in both of these novels are sharply delineated into licit and illicit behavior, acceptable relationships and unacceptable relationships.  These divisions undoubtedly seem alien to many of you, and this partially because behind these divisions are not grounded on a simple distinction between the natural and the unnatural, but rather upon the will of society determining what citizens should “accept” as natural or unnatural.  In the case of these novels, the will of society is, in many respects, distinct from the will(s) of our own society.

But why, we might ask, do Zamyatin and Orwell spend time discussing sexual relationships, and why do the States in both of their novels place such a premium on controlling sexual behavior?  Part of the answer to this question can be found in another of Gayle Rubin’s essays, “Thinking Sex:  Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”.  She argues in the introduction to this essay that:

The time has come to think about sex.  To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation.  But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.  Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries.  They acquire immense symbolic weight.  Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity.  Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.

            The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression.  As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity.  They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental.  In that sense, sex is always political.  But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized.  In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated. (4-5)

Dystopian fiction, by nature of its fundamental character, tends to depict historical periods when sexuality is contested and sexual codes are redrawn to enhance the state’s control over individuals.  The amount of control that the One State exercises in We, for example, is evidenced by the Lex Sexualis: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  This law functions on a two-fold level:  first, it serves as an express reminder to the citizens that they are commodities to be consumed both by each other and by the state, and secondly, it serves to remind them that in this absolute Communist society, the state owns everything, including bodies, reproduction and sexual enjoyment.

Lest we be too quick to criticize this control of sexuality in the One State, it might be wise to consider the control of sexuality in our own society.  First, while, in most states in the United States the traffic in sex is illegal, “sexiness” is a hot commodity that both sells all manner of goods and is itself sold in a wide array of forms.  The fact that sexuality and sexiness are marketed and consumed in our society is evidenced by pornography’s status as one of the largest online industries.  Perhaps the primary difference between us and the numbers of the One State is that while we and the citizens of the One State both agree, for the most part, that sex is a desirable commodity, the citizens of the One State, in accordance with their standards of equality, are unable to profit from the exchange of sexual favors.  By contrast, many Americans make a great deal of money from sexual activity.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that while many of the states legalize the sale of sexuality and sexiness in the form of pornography, most states have outlawed prostitution, thus denying, as it were, many women and some men the right to earn money by using and selling what is theirs—their bodies.  In a sense then, our government has determined who can profit from sex, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of sex workers, who work illegally.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, another effect of the Lex Sexualis is to end marriage and families.  This is desirable because it allows the state to create absolute bonds of loyalty with its citizenry.  No longer does a woman think about her husband, or a man think about his wife.  Instead they focus on the relationship with the state.  This substitution of the state for a loved one occurs in both We and 1984.  For example, as I noted in the previous post, the woman who works next to Winston is involved in “tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago” (42).  She can do this both because she has developed the capacity for doublethink and because her relationship to Oceania takes precedence over her relationship to her husband or any other individual.

The fact that the woman working next to Winston is single best suits the needs of the Party.  Her loyalty, however, is suspect because she may not have willingly chosen to be single.  By contrast, Comrade Ogilvy, represents the untainted devotion desired by the state because he “had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (47).  Yet surpassing even Ogilvy in his loyalty, is Winston’s estranged wife, Katharine, who has sex with Winston, but only as part of “our duty to the Party” (67).  Katharine, perhaps as a consequence of conditioning, perhaps through the will of doublethink, has invested the symbolism of sex, not with lust, certainly not with love, but with patriotism.  Her reconstruction of the meaning of sex is evidenced by how she experiences it:  “She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating, but submitting” (67).  This description of how she experiences sex significantly aligns, as we shall see, with the experiences of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

In addition to having sex with Katharine, Winston also has sex with an older prole prostitute and with Julia.  These sexual encounters are distinctly different in nature.  For Winston, the prostitute represents nothing more than simple sexual release—I choose not to use the word “satisfaction” because it scarcely seems satisfactory.  This encounter is not particularly dangerous either, for, as Orwell explains,

Tacitly the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution, as an outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed.  Mere debauchery did not matter very much, so long as it was furtive and joyless, and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class.  (65)

Furthermore, while the act of sleeping with a prostitute is certainly punishable in Oceania, it is generally not a capital offense.

Significantly, while debauchery is tolerated when it involves Proles, debauchery with Party members is punished much more severely.  Orwell goes on to clarify why the Party opposes relationships within the Party:

The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control.  Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act.  Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it.…  The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party.  Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.…  The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it.  (65-66)

Later Orwell, notes that the “sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account” (133). The Party’s success in distorting sex is evidenced both in Katharine’s submission during sex and in Winston’s revulsion with the sexual experience he has with the prostitute.  This revulsion prevents Winston from regularly frequenting prostitutes.  As a consequence, his own sexual desires remain constantly thwarted.  This sexual repression is “turned… to account” by creating “sexual privation [that] induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (133).  Orwell illustrates the relationship between frustrated sexuality and the attitudes of citizens by describing a Party rally in sexual terms:  the mob’s mood is like a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax” (180).

While Winston’s sexual liaisons with the prostitute cannot be counted an act of rebellion—after all “the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution”—his relationship with Julia is, in his and her minds, an entirely different matter.  A number of differences seem to exist between the relationship Winston has with the prostitute and the one he has with Julia.  Unlike Winston’s low risk encounter with the prostitute, Julia’s and Winston’s liaison risks their freedom and their very lives.  This risk severs any ties they have to the Party and creates a situation where their loyalties, by necessity, are redirected towards each other.  For a comparable modern example, we might consider the relationships of homosexuals during much of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because homosexuality was illegal in America and most European countries, homosexuals found themselves, by the very nature of their desires and activities, outside the law and, to a certain extent, alienated from society. Given these facts, we should expect that homosexuals, like Winston and Julia, would formulate ties that largely ignored the claims of their societies.  That social commentators are aware of the subversive nature of sexuality becomes apparent when one examines modern conservative commentators, like Maggie Gallagher, who argue that homosexuality threatens society by undermining the institution of marriage.  Marriage (and having children), in other words, becomes a “duty to society” in a way that is not dissimilar to Katharine’s conception of sex as doing one’s duty for the Party.  This permits those in power to cast the offenders as sexual traitors.

Winston’s relationship with Julia also differs from this relationship with the prostitute in that it permits them together to create a reality separate from the Party.  As Orwell explains, “the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” (133).  By contrast, Winston’s furtive, and unsatisfactory sexual involvement with the prostitute merely confirms the control that the Party exercises over all aspects of life.

Winston’s sexual encounter with the prostitute also acts to dehumanize and degrade both the prostitute and Winston.  She, after all, is a shoddy, forbidden commodity for which he pays two dollars.  He is a desperate man who pays for something that has been Winston and Julialabeled perverted by his society.  By contrast, Orwell emphasizes the fact that Julia and Winston freely engage in sex.  To ensure that this is not a transaction, Winston specifically asks Julia if she enjoys sex, to which she responds, “I adore it” (126).  Her response stands in contrast to Katharine’s philosophy of sex as social duty and the prostitute’s philosophy of sex as commodity.  Julia is having sex in part simply because she enjoys sex.  This free exchange of sex helps humanize Julia and Winston and perhaps even ennobles them.

While their sexual encounter is a free one, it is not an uncontaminated one.  After all, as Orwell points out “you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays.  No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred” (126)  Beyond being about desire, then, their sexual activity becomes a denial of the Party’s power.  Winston’s revels in her sexuality because, “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire:  …was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126).  As Orwell explains, “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory.  It was a blow struck against the Party.  It was a political act”  (126).  In light of the Party’s determined effort at either wiping out or subverting the sexuality of the citizens of Oceania, it is indeed difficult to interpret this act as anything other than an assault on the Party’s control.

 

“FROM THE AGE OF UNIFORMITY, FROM THE AGE OF SOLITUDE”:  BEING ALONE BECAUSE OF THE CROWD

Michael D. Amey

Welcome to my second post on Orwell’s 1984.  In this post I’m going to focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  These themes are essential aspects of a number of dystopian novels and movies, and are present in We, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, Feed and Jennifer Government, to name a few examples.

“Every Breathe You Take, Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break, Every Step You Take, I’ll Be Watching You”

(Lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” by the Police)

woman being watched advertisementMichel Foucault, the philosopher who provided us with the concept of the Panopticon, would have reveled in the abundant irony of a rock band called the Police singing the lyrics of “Every Breathe You Take”.  The song, apparently intended as a romantic gesture, chronicles the jealous, obsessive voyeurism of a jilted lover.  In a particularly revealing moment, the speaker in the song laments, “Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.

Implicit in the lyrics of this song is the relationship between an individual who is watched and the institution or individual doing the watching.  The ownership that the lovelorn singer claims is based on his ability to spy on the object of his love constantly, even as she does mundane things like breathe and walk.  This, in itself, however, is not enough to ensure his claim on her.  For him to own her, she must be aware of his vigilant gaze:  “oh, can’t you see, you belong to me”.  In other words, she must see him seeing her for the power of the gaze to be operative.  A similar approach to this use of the gaze as means of control and ownership is suggested in the lyrics of the traditional Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  The addressee, in this case a child, not a woman, is told:

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Surely, if a child ever believed these lyrics, then he would assume that Santa had ownership over him in as much that nothing the child did would ever escape the gaze of Santa and all behavior could be subjected to rewards and punishments by Santa.  He would regulate his behavior to suit what he imagined Santa desired, and thus would, ironically NOT “be good for goodness sake”.  As with “Every Breathe You Take”, surveillance in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” depends for its success on the fact that the child is aware that he is being watched.  If the child is unaware of Santa’s all pervasive gaze and ability to dole out rewards and punishments, then Santa’s power ceases to function.

George Orwell’s Oceania functions on a similar premise.  Party members are subjected to constant visual and auditory scrutiny via telescreens, listening devices and the spying eyes of neighbors, friends and family.  Significantly, these instruments of scrutiny do not function independently of each other; rather, they are merely hundreds of eyes and ears working for the face of the Party, Big Brother.

For the most part, there is nothing covert in this surveillance.  Just as the lyrics from “Every Breathe You Take” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” would suggest, surveillance, by itself, is not enough.  Instead, the citizens are kept constantly aware of the fact that they’re being watched.  They are informed by posters that “BIG BROTHER ISUncle Sam WATCHING YOU”.  The “YOU” at the end of the sentence is imperative, because the citizen is left with no doubt that he or she has been personally sought out as the object of attention.   Furthermore, the fact that each citizen is being constantly inspected is driven home by the ubiquity of the image of Big Brother.  Orwell illustrates this by describing Winston looking at a coin:

He took a twenty-five-cent piece out of his pocket.  There, too, in tiny clear lettering, the same slogans were inscribed, and on the other face of the coin the head of Big Brother.  Even from the coin the eyes pursued you.  On coins, on stamps on the covers of books, on banners, on posters, and on the wrapping of a cigarette pack—everywhere.  Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you.  Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed—no escape.  (27)

These images serve as a constant reminder of the fact that every aspect of life is under continuous scrutiny.

In discussions that I have led with students in classes on the wide sweeping surveillance powers granted the United States government by the Patriot Act, most students have seemed unconcerned by this potential invasion of privacy.  They remind me that if I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to be afraid of.  Presumably it is only terrorists and evil-doers who need worry that the NSA might be eavesdropping.  Perhaps my students are right.  It is worth noting, though, that in Oceania, the citizens also, technically, have nothing to fear from the watchful eyes of Big Brother.  After all, Orwell, in discussing Winston’s use of a journal, notes that “This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws) ….” (6).  In theory, then, it is impossible for Winston to break the law.  Nevertheless, he is concerned because if he were “detected it was reasonably certain that [his use of the journal] would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp” (6).

Implicitly then, the abolition of the laws (in itself a paradoxical exercise of law) does not guarantee greater freedom for the citizens or the absence of crime and criminals.  Indeed, as Orwell makes clear when he describes show trials in Oceania, the absence of laws does not even prevent the exercise of a corrupt legal system.  Consequently, instead of reassuring the citizens that no crime can be committed because there are no laws to break, this “lawless” society creates the potential for anything and everything to be considered a crime.  The crime, however, which is fundamental to all crimes is Minority Reportthoughtcrime (19).  Some of you will remember from my earlier posts about We that in the One State freedom is believed to be root cause of all crime.  Orwell takes Zamyatin’s logic one step further by realizing that crime occurs because people think.  Machines are incapable of committing crimes specifically because they cannot think.  By contrast, all humans are, by the very fact that they are incapable of maintaining complete control of their thoughts, thoughtcriminals. This unfortunate flaw in human nature is revealed to Winston by the usually loyal Parsons.  He explains to Winston (for the benefit of the unseen watchers) that thoughtcrime is

insidious.  It can get a hold of you without your even knowing it.  Do you know how it got hold of me?  In my sleep!  Yes, that’s a fact.  There I was, working away, trying to do my bit—never knew I had any bad stuff in my mind at all.  And then I started talking in my sleep.  Do you know what they heard me saying?  […]  ’Down with Big Brother!’  Yes, I said that!  Said it over and over again, it seems.  (233)

 

The fact that Parsons, a man who diligently “tries to do his bit” is capable of thoughtcrime indicates that no one is innocent.

As I indicated earlier, part of the power of the surveillance in Oceania is linked to the fact that it is, for all intents and purposes, incessant.  In the first few pages Orwell informs us that:

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously.  Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, could be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.  There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any moment.  How often, or on what system, the Though Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork.  It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.  But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.  (3)

Of course, what Orwell describes matches the operation of Foucault’s Panopticon where surveillance is “visible and unverifiable”.  The broader consequence of this unverifiable but visible surveillance is that,

he who is subject to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles, he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (Foucault 203)

In other words, “You had to live—did live from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized” (3).

The guilt that rests on all citizens, even those, like Parsons, who truly strive to remain innocent, has its impact on ever aspect of how they lead their lives.  Early on, Orwell describes Winston moments before he takes the risky decision to write in his journal:  “He had set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen” (5).  The point that this description makes is that citizens like Winston “wear” expressions instead of having them.  This learned expression is a disguise meant to conceal the “illegal” activity going on in the mind of the citizen. This expression is, in particular, a means of keeping the one last possession available to the citizens of Oceania:  “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (27). Of course, the Party has taken steps to penetrate this last place of concealment.  Those watching are trained to spot any gesture or expression that might be indicative of thoughtcrime.  Thus, on a deeper level than Winston realizes, “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body” (102-103).  The body becomes the traitor of the mind.

The unblinking gaze of Big Brother also has an impact on the larger community.  This gaze creates conformity among members, as illustrated by the group activities and even by the enforced exercises.  In spite of the fact that these group activities are compulsory—though this is never explicitly stated—the activities also become genuine.  Orwell explains that the “horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a  part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.  Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary” (14).  What this suggests, is that a process is in Lynchingplace of control that is initially coercive, but then becomes less coercive as the individual enacts the role assigned to him or her.  Thus, while Winston may initially be acting because he is aware of the judgmental gaze of others and Big Brother, he eventually ceases to act and embodies, instead, the desired behavior.  His conformity is tied to the well documented concept of mob mentality, an unthinking mentality that the Party fosters through emotional events like Hate Week and Two Minutes Hate.

The importance of collectivism to the functioning of Oceania is further illustrated by the fact that:

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed.  It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.  There was a word for it in Newspeak:  ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity. (82)

It is worth noting that the expectation of constant communal activities in Oceania bears a striking resemblance to how cults operate.  Time alone allows people to form independent opinions that are more than mere reactions to the emotions and opinions of other people.  Such independent opinions are dangerous to the cohesion of most groups.

Ironically, for all of the communal activities that citizens of Oceania participate in, each of them remains separated from each other, from citizens of the past and from citizens in the future.  Parsons, for example, has a wife and children, but this does not mean that he has a family.  After all, it is his own daughter who turns him in for saying, “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep.  (We should pause here to consider one of the dilemmas that faces Parson….   Because he was asleep, he doesn’t know what he was saying or if he was even saying anything at all.  His daughter may have made up the whole story and reported him for the excitement of the experience and the approval she would receive from her peers.  At the same time, he can’t doubt her claim because to doubt her claim would be illustrate his own disloyalty to Big Brother.  As Parson tells Winston, “You don’t think the Party would arrest an innocent man, do you?” (233).

The fact that families do not function according to traditional expectations is further highlighted by Winston’s reflections on his family life:

Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.  (30)

Indeed, this failure of the family is represented by one of Winston’s colleagues:

He knew that in the cubicle next to him the little woman with sandy hair toiled day in, day out, simply at tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed.  There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago. (42)

Replacing the traditional family structure is the relationship of the individual to the state.  For this reason, the Party wisely personifies itself as, appropriately enough, Big Brother.  Of course, although Big Brother is a term derived from a familial relationship, Big Brother is not a family member.  No one has a relationship with Big Brother, even though Winston believes, on the final page that Big Brother loves him and he loves Big Brother.

Winston’s reflections on tragedy highlight the fact that it is not merely the institution of the family that has broken down.  Love and friendship have also ceased to be meaningful.  The “friends” Winston has are clearly not friends; they barely deserve the term acquaintances.  Even his relationship with Julia, which is the most intimate relationship he has, is not one that ends his isolation.  While Julia cares for him, she does not understand him or share his desire to rebel for the sake of greater freedom.  The ultimate tragedy for these two characters is in the fact that having promised not to betray each other, they are unable to avoid the betrayal that their change in feelings for each other entails.

Lastly, we must note the irony involved in Winston’s greeting in his journal:

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone—to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone:

            From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink—greetings! (28)

 

Winston, of course, cannot address the past both because the past is the past and because, in Oceania, the past doesn’t exist.  Furthermore, he can’t hope to address the future because the future will either be controlled by the Party, in which case Winston —as part of the undesired past—will be obliterated from history, or the future will be so different from Winston’s present that nobody will understand what he is describing.  Thus, he is cut off from both the past and the future and exists only in the terrible present.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books, 1991

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DESTROYING THE PAST TO CREATE THE PRESENT:  IDEOLOGY AND TRUTH

Michael Amey

With this post I’m commencing a three part discussion of 1984.  This first post will briefly introduce you to George Orwell and to 1984, and will focus on the role of history in creating the present.  The concepts of epistemology, ideology and “Truth” will play a critical role in this first discussion.  The next post will focus on isolation, collectivism and surveillance.  The final post on 1984 will ask us to examine the role of sexuality as an instrument of power and control.

The Man Who Knew Big Brother

OrwellEric Blair, better known to most of us as George Orwell, wrote books and essays, many of which were social and political commentaries.  His two best known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, exemplify these social and political themes.

Orwell’s prescient depiction of totalitarianism in 1984 arose out of the historical conditions surrounding his life, as well as from his own store of personal experiences and ideas.  Orwell emphasized the value of understanding this background in his essay, “Why I Write” by noting:

“I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.”

Orwell was unquestionably shaped by the age in which he lived.  His earliest inspiration for the totalitarian regime represented by Big Brother may well have come as a consequence of serving with the Imperial Police Force in Burma and India.  As a member of the privileged English race, he witnessed first-hand the inhumanity of an oppressive regime and the injustice inherent in imperialism; themes which he touched upon in his novel, Burmese Days and in his essay, “A Hanging”.  His experiences working to expand and maintain imperialism, combined with the rise of totalitarianism in both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, provided him with a pessimistic view of authority.  He explained in “Why I Write” that,

First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc.

The real transformative moment, however, came for him, when, in 1936, he went to Spain to fight in the civil war against fascism.  That period in his life was the catalyst for his writing:

Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity.  (“Why I Write”)

 

Indeed, in reflecting on his motives for writing in general, Orwell produced two that are specifically relevant to the shape of 1984:

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.  (“Why I Write)

1984 is very clearly a text created with a political purpose.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, is keenly aware of the political nature of all acts, including, as I will discuss in the last post, the sexual act.  In this post, however, I will focus more on the combination of the historical impulse, the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity” and the relationship of this impulse to politics.   

In describing the writing process, Orwell explains that,

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.  (“Why I Write”)

In the case of 1984, the source of injustice that inspired Orwell was Stalin’s repressive Communist regime.  His critique of Stalinism was essential for two reasons.   First, while awareness of Stalin’s ruthless acts was infiltrating Western consciousness, many leftist intellectuals still either sympathized with or supported Stalinism.  As a leftist intellectual, Orwell saw the importance of separating the foundations of socialist idealism from the excesses of Stalinism. Secondly, in 1948, as Orwell was composing 1984, there was no reason to believe that the Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, or, for that matter, that the war would remain cold.  Orwell’s novel helped explain in this uncertain time why it was important that Stalinism not succeed.  1984 remains, however, a valuable book because while it is rooted in the rise of 20th century totalitarianism, it provides a critique of power that is not limited to one historical point in time.

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The Benefactor and Big Brother

As you read 1984, you may have started noticing similarities to We.  Orwell had read We and acknowledged his indebtedness to Zamyatin’s novel.  The following similarities are particularly worth noting:

  • At the beginning of 1984, Winston starts keeping a journal.  In We, D-503 keeps a journal.
  • Oceania, the nation in which Winston lives, is policed by the “Thought Police”.  In The One State, the police force are called the Guardians.  Both groups operate through surveillance and by gathering information from “concerned” citizens.
  • Oceania is governed by Big Brother, while The One State is governed by the Benefactor.  Both leaders are probably fictitious constructs meant to maintain the power structures of each society.  For a similar example, watch the role of Father in the movie Equilibrium.
  • The states in both novels carefully regulate and monitor sexual activity.  In 1984 citizens have to apply to a committee for permission to get married.  Sex is discouraged by the “Junior Anti-Sex League”.  The purpose of this control, in part, was “to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which [the Party] might not be able to control” (65).  In We, marriage has been outlawed for similar reasons, and the frequency of sexual activity is “scientifically determined”.
  • Both Winston and D-503 begin to actively resist their respective regimes in part because of the elicit affairs they have.
  • In 1984, the proles are predominantly excluded from the working of the Party.  In We, the Mephi, or those outside the Green Wall are excluded from The One State.
  • In 1984, Winston develops a deadly relationship with a government agent, O’Brien.  In We, D-503 develops a relationship with the Guardian, S.
  • In both states, control is extended to everyday activities.  Winston, for example, if forced, along with everyone else, to do calisthenics, while the number of time that D-503 chews his food is prescribed.
  • In 1984, Winston finds a place where he and Julia can meet in the Prole section of town.  This house, with its old furnishings, is like a museum of the past.  Similarly, D-503 meets with I-330 at the “Old House”, a museum from a previous time.
  • In We, D-503 comments on the absurdity of the human head and how it conceals ideas.  Likewise, Winston notes that “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull” (26).
  • Winston and D-503 are both eventually broken by the state and come to “love” their oppressors.

There are undoubted more similarities than these.  Feel free to post them as you find them!

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History and the Present

A critical component of the Party’s power structure is its ability to control the present by continually changing the past.  Significantly, the present has no enduring quality.  As we move through time, each second of now slips into the past.  The Party’s control of the past extends, as Winston explains, to the immediate past:  “Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? …  History has stopped.  Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right” (155).  It is unsurprising then that Julia, Winston’s young lover, cannot remember the fact that a mere four years ago Oceania was at war with Eastasia instead of Eurasia (154).  She, as a product of the Party, has been taught to forget the past and to engage in the “doublethink” that allows for two contradictory facts to both be true.

Furthermore, unlike the unreformed Winston, Julia sees no reason to worry about the fact that she can’t remember the past.  Her concerns are located in the present and in her immediate personal interests:  “she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life.  Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her” (153).

Given that her memory does not extend past four years, we have to even question how extensively she rebels against the teachings of the Party that touch upon her own life.  After all, imagining that she was forcibly separated from Winston, four years later, would she remember that she had ever been with him?   Early in her relationship she tells Winston that she has had sex “[hundreds] of times—well, scores of times, anyway” (125).  Is her uncertainty about her sexual activities a consequence of the numerous times she has had sex, her desire to impress Winston with her rebellious behavior, or, possibly, her actual inability to remember her own past?  Significantly, Orwell tells us nothing tangible about Julia’s past.  We are left to imagine the nature of her sexual relationships.  Were they all acts of rebellion?  Has she known other men like Winston?  It would seem that Winston might want to know the answer to this last question if only to locate other potential subversives, but he does not probe her vague statement of promiscuity.

As for Julia’s disregard for the past, this disregard is the logical consequence of the Party’s control.  In Oceania, “the past not only changed, but changed continuously” (79).  Any attempt to follow the oscillating changes of the past would lead to insanity.  As Winston comes to realize,

In a way, the world-view of the Party imposed itself most successfully on people incapable of understanding it.  They could be made to accept the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.  By lack of understanding they remained sane.  (156)

Winston is, of course, partially wrong in suggesting that the Party has instituted an endless present.  The present, even more than the past, is unstable and open to reconstruction because it continually slides into the past.  Indeed, past, present and future are, from one perspective, concurrent events.  From this perspective, the Party Slogan, “Who controls the past controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past” (35), is absolutely correct.  Orwell provides the basic outline by which this control is exercised:  “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth” (75).  This control of time, through the efficient erasure of past thoughts and the forgetting of that erasure, guarantees a form of control over not merely time but all reality, or as the Party calls it “Reality Control”.  The paradox of reality control is explained, in part, by Winston’s realization:  “If both the past and the external world exist only in the Mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?” (80).

The possibility that the external world merely exists in the mind is one that cannot be completely ignored.  The philosopher Descartes realized that he could not trust any of his senses to correctly inform him about the external world.  Think of it this way—we usually take for granted that the things we see and feel are “real”.  Descartes, however, knew that he saw things in dreams, but he was sure that either the reality in what he called dreams or in what he waking must be false.  In his opinion, both the dream world and the waking world couldn’t mutually be real.  He also recognized that the use of drugs, say opium, could also change an individual’s perception of reality.  Simply put we receive conflicting messages from our senses.  Even when we are awake and not “hallucinating” our senses trick us into seeing things like mirages.  The problem was that while each of these states of reality appeared to be mutually exclusive, for a person undergoing a dream or a hallucination, the perceived reality seems as real or more real than what we typically consider reality.  Descartes also thought that it was possible that mathematics and logic, things which apparently don’t rely on senses but on reason, were tricks.  We assume, like Winston, that 2 + 2 = 4.  By contrast, Descartes points out that “We may think that mathematics is self-regulating and testable, but there might just be an invisible demon who continuously hypnotizes us into thinking that our mathematics is correct” (Robinson & Garratt, 46).  What this means is that essentially all of what we accept as “Truth” and “reality” is vulnerable and open to debate and negotiation.

There is a difference, of course, between Descartes’ dilemma and Orwell’s description of reality in 1984.  The primary difference is that where Descartes suspects his senses and believes that they could be inaccurate (they could also be, of course, entirely accurate), Winston knows for a certainty that the reality he lives in is a construct.  Descartes speculates that an “invisible demon” could be toying with his perceptions of logic and mathematics.  Winston, by contrast, knows that the Party is deliberately manipulating his logic.  He is aware that:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.  It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later:  the logic of their position demanded it.  Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.  The heresy of heresies was common sense. (80)

The suggestion that a control of the past also dictates a control of reality seems at first glance nonsensical.  How can the past control what we take to be real?  The only way to understand this is by returning to what we learned about Marxism in our last lecture.  Marx, as you will recall stated in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”  As I noted, Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.  If our society could be restructured without our awareness of it, and then that restructuring erased from our minds, what we would “see” in the world, would differ radically from what we now see.

And, of course, such restructuring of society actually do occur.  Michel Foucault notes, for example, that prior to the 19th century, the word and the concept “homosexual” did not exist.  Of course there were men who had sex with men and women who had sex with women prior to the 19th century, but these individuals were not seen as belonging to a different category than any other individual.  Their sexual practices did not define their identities.  Because the concept of homosexual didn’t exist, it follows that the concept of the heterosexual also did not exist prior to the 19th century.  In our own society, however, we have these terms and we tend to define people by these terms.  Not only do we define our contemporaries by their sexual preferences, we assign those labels posthumously to individuals of the past.  Thus, a favorite pastime of some supporters of homosexuality has been to identify and “out” famous people, like Leonardo da Vinci, as homosexuals.  The problem with this approach to history is that it takes our world view and applies it indiscriminately to people who did not possess our mental framework.

As a final note, I want to return us again to the idea of “Truth” being vulnerable.  Most of us probably assume that reality and the “Truth” are fixed entities—that reality is what is real and that the “Truth” is what is true.  While it is possible that these exist, as Descartes makes clear, being certain about these forms of knowledge is impossible.  Added to that, our favourite philosopher, Michel Foucault, points out that reality and “Truth” will always be highly contested areas because of the fact that they serve to create power.  He goes on to state:

There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’—it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political roles it plays. (132)

Winston is a phenomenal character precisely because he is aware of this battle.  Arguably, this makes him a far greater risk to the Party than Julia or, for that matter, most anyone else referenced in the novel.

Works Cited

Orwell, George.  1981.  1984: A Novel.

Orwell, George.  “Why I Write.”  http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw     Accessed 28 June 2017.

Foucault, Michel.  1980.  Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977.  ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshal, John Mepham and Kate Soper.  New York:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Robinson, Dave and Chris Garratt.  1999.  Introducing Descartes.  Cambridge:  Icon Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Workers in a Brave New World:  Building Utopia/Dystopia on Slave Labor

Michael D. Amey

Welcome back to our posts on dystopian narratives.  In this post, I’m going to begin by examining the teachings of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels as expressed in The Communist Manifesto.  Once I have provided a basic overview of some of his theories, I will examine Fritz Lang’s extremely influential movie, Metropolis, paying close attention to how Marxist theory informs this film.

The Communist Manifesto:  A Defunct Ideology?

Marx and EngelsThe fall of Communism in Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, indicated to many people, particularly in the United States and Europe, that Marxism was an inherently flawed system that could not be practically applied.  The history of Soviet oppression and domination, a history which prompted President Reagan to label the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, suggested that Marxist utopianism not only did not work, it shouldn’t even be attempted.   Certainly, nothing about the Soviet Union and its Eastern-block allies suggested that the classless, stateless utopian society envisioned by Marx and Engels had been achieved.

 

While Marxism was never successfully implemented, Marx’s and Engels’ insights into the structuring of society, the creation of identity, and the forces that drive history are particularly useful for anyone studying the concepts of utopia and dystopia.  Indeed, both Engels and Marx clearly understood that their ideas were related to utopian projects, but they rejected utopianism as unscientific.  In fact, as you will notice when you read The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels were careful to distinguish communism from other “impractical” utopian projects.  Several decades after publishing The Communist Manifesto, Engels developed his criticism of the utopian planners in his study, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science.    His argument, which was levied primarily against the French utopian socialists mentioned in The Communist Manifesto, was that their utopias were unscientific, while Marxism was based on science (Booker 1994, 33).  Marxism, according to Engels and Marx, was the product of the scientific study of history.  Through this careful, scientific study of the trajectory of history, they believed that they could predict both future social developments, and, in a sense, the end of history.  What follows is a brief description of key Marxist concepts, which will help you understand Marxist criticism, The Communist Manifesto and Fritz Lang’s movie, Metropolis.

Based on what I’ve just said, it should be evident that Marxism is heavily indebted to the study of history.  The Marxist approach to historical study is frequently termed historical materialism.  The concept underlying historical materialism is suggested by Marx’s statement in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness”.  What Marx was arguing was that our society, including how our society produces and uses things, determines to a large extent how we view the world.

An Example of Consciousness Shaped by Society:  What Would You See?

Alien

Fairy

Consider for a moment, which of these two images you would be least surprised to encounter on a walk in the woods.  Sighting either of them would certainly constitute a departure from ordinary life.  Most Americans, however, would discount the fairy as an imaginary creature.  Indeed, fairy tales refer specifically to stories that are clearly untrue.  By contrast, some Americans would be predisposed to accept the existence of an extra-terrestrial.  In the Middle Ages, however, people would have accepted the possibility of the fairy, but would not have been able to even conceive of the idea of the extra-terrestrial.  It’s worth noting that conceptually, fairies and extra-terrestrials are very similar.  Both “species” are alleged to have extraordinary powers and both “species” reportedly kidnap humans.  What differentiates these two “species” are the social assumptions underlying them.  Fairies are “supernatural” beings.  Extra-terrestrials, by contrast, are “scientific” beings, who supposedly travel through space in UFOs.  A medieval citizen would be unable to conceptualize an alien because his or her social framework would have lacked any reference to space age technology.  By contrast, modern Americans frequently, albeit not always, discount the supernatural.  Science and technology pervade our world, and as a consequence we look for scientific and technological explanations for the phenomenon we encounter.  As Marx says, our social existence determines our consciousness.

Marx and Engels understood that our modern consciousness is, in fact, shaped both by capitalist production and consumption.  On a very basic level, our existence as producers / consumers impacts how we see the world.  For example, few of us think twice about “marketing ideas” or “marketing people”.  Clearly, an individual who markets himself is one who successfully presents himself as a product for consumption.  This image is only possible in a society where producing, marketing and selling things is the primary means of making a living.  Likewise, the concept that we can “market” an idea indicates our belief that ideas are produced just like material objects.  Indeed, our intellectual property laws stem from the fact that we see both tangible and intangible things as objects that can be possessed and traded.  Even our concept of wage labor suggests that time is a commodity that can be sold and consumed.  Thus a lawyer will tell her client that she is on the clock, indicating that the client will be billed for the use of that time.

Along with arguing that consciousness is shaped by society, Marx and Engels believed that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (The Communist Manifesto).  History, according to their theory moved forward through class struggles.  Each step led inevitably to the next step.  The final step would be when the proletariats (workers) violently overthrew the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and established a dictatorship of the workers.  With property centralized in the hands of society and used for the benefit of all, social class would eventually fade away.  From that point on, of course, class struggles would end, and history, as envisioned by Marx and Engels, would cease to exist.  It is worth noting that in many texts describing utopian societies, the success of those societies depends on the elimination of private property and class.  In these narratives, the accumulation of private property is seen as the primary cause of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition.  The eventual disappearance of social injustice, warfare and unhealthy competition allows society to become static and unchanging.

By contrast, dystopian narratives frequently borrow from Marx and highlight the social disruption caused by class conflict.  In 1984, George Orwell specifically identifies the proletarians as subversive (and strangely free) members of society.  More traditionally, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis warfare between the workers (hands) and the capitalists (minds) is only barely prevented by Freder, the mediator (heart).  This conclusion is foretold in The mediator Metropolisthe opening Epigram, which states “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”.  Marx and Engels, of course, would have dismissed the proposal that there could be a mediator between the head and hands as preposterous.  Undoubtedly, they would call in to question Freder’s motives and would argue that Freder’s actions, far from radically transforming society, simply ensures that the status quo is maintained.  Their criticism would most likely mimic their criticism of bourgeoisie sympathizers in The Communist Manifesto:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organizers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.  …

They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightaway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

The criticism that Marx and Engels offer here certainly illuminates some of the problems with Metropolis.  While Freder is able to negotiate a reconciliation between the chief-foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot, and his father, Joh Fredersen, there is nothing in the movie that suggests that the reconciliation will substantially change the roles of either the workers or the capitalists.  Indeed, one can suppose that having done his bit, Freder will retreat to the Eternal Gardens to live out his days with Marie.  Beyond the symbolic Metropolis clock 1gesture Freder makes earlier in the movie by working one shift for Worker 11811, there is no evidence suggesting that he is either willing to give up his luxuries or that he is willing to actually work.

Marx and Engels would have also undoubtedly dismissed the conditionality of Freder’s horrified question to his father, “What if one day those in the depths rise against you?”  For them, it was not a matter of “if” but “when”.  They saw the eventual revolution as a historical inevitability.  Although they saw this revolution as the unavoidable consequence of capitalist society, Marx and Engels did not see individuals as acting in predetermined ways.  They believed in a the possibility of action as is evidenced by Marx’s assertion, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it” (Theses on Feuerbach).  Thus, while conflict between the proletariats and bourgeoisie was inevitable, and eventual victory preordained, the role of individuals in that struggle depended on the exercise of freewill.

Although Marx and Engels would have dismissed the general narrative of Metropolis, they would have valued some of the symbolism of the film.  For example, Marx predicted that workers would become alienated.  By this, he meant that through paid labor, workers would gradually lose control over their own lives.  Their time, and thus their lives, would belong to their employers.  The emphasis on the control of time is highlighted throughout the movie, first by opening shots of two clocks, and later by Freder’s operation of a machine that looks like a clock-face.  Indeed, as Freder strugglesMetroplis clock 2 to control the machine, a face of clock is superimposed over the face of the machine.  Significantly, it is never clear what that machine, or any of the other machines, produces beyond the labor of those who run the machines.

Marx explains the alienation that private property causes thus, “Presupposing private property, my work is an alienation of life, for I work in order to live, in order to obtain for myself the means of life. My work is not my life.”  The end result of such alienation is the dehumanizing of the worker.  In Metropolis, we are first introduced to the workers during a shift change.  The workers leaving the shift move at Machines metropolishalf the speed of the “fresh” workers entering the shift.  All of the workers move in lock step, suggesting that they are, in fact, automatons.  The scientist Rotwang’s decision to make a machine in to a human is merely the reverse of the process symbolized by the marching workers.

Rotwang is not merely the creator of the Machine-Man.   With his mechanical hand, he represents the hybrid of human and machine.  Rotwang justifies Rotwang Marie Metropolisthis loss of his hand noting, “Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future, the Machine-Man?”  Rotwang status as a Machine-Man that he dreams of creating  is further suggested by his plans to create a mechanical version of his lover.

The dehumanization of the workers is metaphorically extended in the scene where the M Machine is transformed into Moloch.  Just before that point, the workers appear to be no more than mere extensions of the machine.  It is unclear, in fact, whether they are operating the machine, or the machine is operating Machine god metropolisthem.  While the movie highlights the degradation of the workers in the depths, it would be wrong to assume that they are the only workers alienated from their labor.  Pay particular attention to the scene in Joh Fredersen’s office.  There, Josephat and the other clerks responsible for overseeing the operations of the city can be seen sweating over numbers.  Like the machines which are never shown to actually produce anything, the numbers also seem to be disconnected from any clear productive use, beyond simply producing labor.  Still, whatever the machines and numbers represent, they clearly have economic value, for the film tells us, “Fathers for whom every revolution of a machine wheel meant gold had created for their sons the miracle of the Eternal Gardens”.

The mechanization of people, as described above, would, according to Marx and Engels, be accompanied by a process whereby humans would increasingly be seen as commodities for consumption.  The workers in Metropolis, of course, exemplify an apparently endlessly renewable resource.  As soon as the first group of workers have died on the M Machine, a new cohort of workers arrives to replace them.  While this consumption of humans is most blatant in depictions of the workers, it also occurs in the lives of others.  The women in the Eternal Gardens are clearly meant to be “consumed” by Freder.  In the scene before Freder enters the garden, one of the young women exhibits her body for the approval of the master of ceremonies.  There is no question in her mind about her function in the Eternal Gardens.  Significantly, just as Marx and Engels fail to adequately address the question of liberation for women, so too, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis makes no commentary on the lives of these young women who appear, like exotic birds, to be trapped in a gilded cage.

Metropolis Marie dancingThe idea of the consumption of the female body extends to the erotic dance of the Marie robot.  Her dance illustrates the mechanization of the sex industry.  Just as the Marie robot is not a real woman, and has no emotional connection to the men for whom she performs, so too, in the modern porn industry, porn stars remain “fictional constructs” who fulfill male fantasies.  I hasten to note here that the women who play the porn stars are real, but that the personae that they take on are artificial.  Men, of course, are generally not interested in the women behind the porn personae, any more than the men in Metropolis are interested in the robot beneath the veneer of the exotic dancer.

Lang’s presentation of the Marie robot has to be given particular credit for foreshadowing some of the criticism of modern feminists.  In particular, the scene in which dozens of eyes are superimposed over the dancing robot foreshadows feminist theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of scopophilia  (the pleasure one derives from watching another individual as a sexual object).  Scopophilia strips the subject—usually a woman—of her autonomy and of her voice, and transforms her from an active subject to a passive object—a commodity for the enjoyment of the male viewers.  As Laura Mulvey explains in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (1989, 19).  In Metropolis, the male gaze projects its fantasy on to a robot, who is transformed, according to Mulvey, into the “silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (1989, 15).  Of course, we must keep in mind that the role assigned to the Marie robot is in no way different from the roles assigned to the living women in the Eternal Gardens.  They are all commodities who have been assigned a visual value by the male gaze.  Their transformation into commodities for male consumption will be re-echoed in other texts we will be examining, including The Stepford Wives and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other things you should pay attention to in Metropolis are the religious themes (i.e. names like Marie, references to the tower of Babel and Revelation, and the presentation of the Marie robot as the rebirth of Venus, goddess of sexuality.)Venus rising from the sea

 

Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura.  1989.  “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”  In Visual and Other Pleasures.  London:  Macmillan Press, pp. 14-26.